A few days later, Jodi has completed her quest and fulfilled her decades-old promise to Paula. Except the abused boy, Ricky, is now a troubled and troubling adult, rescued but not always grateful to his savior. Along the way Jodi has also found a new locus of desire, Miranda — a beautiful, impulsive young woman with an addictive personality and three young children from her broken marriage to a faded country music star. Jodi and Miranda’s complex relationship, with its tough and delicate moments of attraction and then romance, shapes one of the book’s strongest movements.
Before the six of them — damaged and desperate — shoehorn into Miranda’s Chevette and head up to West Virginia in time for Jodi’s first appointment with her parole officer, Jodi tells Ricky, “Whatever you want for a new life, bring it here with you in the morning.” But the new life they’re all fleeing toward is harsh, and its margins so tight that a welfare benefits card counts as a major asset.
Throughout the narrative, which jumps back and forth in time between the late 1980s and 2007, the events leading to Jodi’s conviction spin in her memory, becoming clearer bit by bit. Her teenage affair with Paula once took Jodi into a dark, frightening and exciting underworld of gambling, guns and passion. At one point, remembering a flight in a small plane over the ocean with Paula, Jodi searches in vain for the right words to describe the color of the water, as elusive as her swirling emotions — words sufficient to “catch the heart-wild magic of it.”
Now, back in West Virginia with her collection of fugitives, Jodi holds to her prison vision of living simply on the land, an old and deeply American dream that is hard to let go. She finds that her grandmother’s farm has been sold, but that doesn’t deter her from moving her group into the cabin anyway for a brief cigarette-and-whiskey outlaw idyll. Instead of peace and hope and love, however, they find they’re under constant threat in an Appalachian community gutted by meth and opioids, by fracking creeping so close that a neighbor can set his tap water on fire, and, as always, by limitations on upward mobility for the underprivileged that have been baked into American culture from its beginning.
Though the powerful pulls of land and home and sense of place persist, one of the primary questions “Sugar Run” asks is what these concepts even mean now in this country. Maren is masterly at describing America’s modern wastelands, the blasted towns not yet and maybe never-to-be the beneficiaries of rehabilitation and reoccupation. The book’s landscape is dotted with roadside casino trailers, abandoned mining operations, country brothels set up like prisons with chain-link fences and armed guards to control both the customers and the immigrant prostitutes. Jodi’s own brother uses her in an opioid transaction and then threatens her by suggesting that locals might consider Miranda’s children better off with a “more Christian” family. How do you possibly find or make a home under such conditions?
In searching for answers to those questions, resolutions to those conflicts, the book’s conclusion perhaps misses an opportunity when it veers toward action and violence and away from one of its greatest strengths — its clear focus on character and place.